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Hear from Mayor Steve Adler

In Episode 11, you'll hear from Mayor Steve Adler about why Austin is unique, why it's grown so much and other insights on what it's like to serve as mayor.

Show Script:

Steve Adler  
And with greater determination than the community, I think, has ever had before because so many people are focused on it. It's such a controversial issue in the city right now. But I think out of that controversy is coming in attention and a dedication that would enable us actually to end homelessness in Austin.

Brian Ondrako  
Welcome everyone to another Gov Gab Podcast, where we talk with city and county leaders across the country about their specific communities and the things that they're doing each and every day to enrich the lives of their citizens. I'm your host Brian Ondrako. So appreciative of you all joining us on this episode where we sit down with the mayor of Austin, Texas, Steve Adler. Now Mayor Adler is in his second term as mayor, he was elected in 2015. And not only do we talk about the great things that are happening in Austin, you know why people are living there, why people want to come there and visit, but the measures that they're taking to understand that the population is only going to grow more each and every year. So how do they get ahead of that game and start solving some of these problems that they're seeing or think that will be coming down the road? So I really enjoyed the conversation with Mayor Adler. I'm appreciative of him joining on the episode today, and let's jump right into it. Without further ado, my chat today with Mayor Steve Adler.

Mayor Adler, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining today.

Steve Adler  
Hey, it's great to be invited.

Brian Ondrako  
Yeah, I'm really excited for this conversation. And obviously Austin's a big city, a lot of people know about it. I'm excited for you to share and to learn a little bit more about what's going on there. I always like to take a step back if we can kind of, you know, jump in the DeLorean, if you will, and in your kind of mind, have you always wanted to be in kind of public office and run for mayor? Is that something that's happened more recently? I know you got elected in 2015. Or was it like years ago as a kid? You're like, I can't wait to, you know, do this. But when did it start for you?

Steve Adler  
I think I seriously thought about running for mayor about 18 days before I made the decision. It was relatively late. You know, I've been involved in the community for a long time. I was involved in politics, not personally but in supporting candidates or causes, but mostly at the federal or state level. No real, not much of an involvement politically at the local level. So it was an occurence of events which ended with me running. We changed the form of government in Austin. We went from a seven-person council that was an at-large council to one that had the entire city broken into 10 districts, and each district elected a representative, the mayor being the only one elected citywide. And research indicated that most cities and counties that move to a district system from an at-large system fail in the first 2-4-6 years because it devolves into a Ward politic kind of thing. So there was a group of us that were involved in the community, knew that it was going to be an entirely new council because virtually everybody on the old council was from the same district, when we broke it up into districts, which one of the reasons why we needed to make that change. So we wanted somebody new, rather than a council incumbent, it's going be a whole new council, a whole new system. It's going to have a whole new mayor, and we went out and tried to recruit one there were some folks in town that would make great mayor's, but they all said no. So eventually, we locked ourselves in a room and said, somebody has to stop what they're doing. Go do this and Diane and I drew the short straw.

Brian Ondrako  
And that's if I can ask one more question on that. Because it's something I actually was researching a little bit. I haven't heard about (that system) too much, what's the popularity? I guess of that 10-1 system, is that done a lot around the country is it a very small amount?

Steve Adler  
You know, I think that over time, more and more cities are going to a district system, as opposed to an at-large system. At-large systems often times have difficulty maintaining themselves because you don't get a diverse council that reflects the population because in a city where a few districts vote are few areas of town but much more heavily than other areas of town. Those areas that vote more heavily can usually control elections. So if you have an area of town that doesn't vote in the same numbers which, unfortunately in today's day and age usually correlate to communities of color. Oftentimes those communities don't have representation on on a council. If you break the city into districts, and each area of the city is guaranteed to have their own represented.

Brian Ondrako  
Absolutely, yeah. So when you went in to office and got elected, like, were you nervous early on like, what the heck did I get myself into? Or did you pretty much as you said, you were kind of involved throughout, you know, and kind of other roles and just kind of knew the system. Was it pretty easy to kind of get involved? How was it for you? I'm curious.

Steve Adler  
Well, I can remember when I decided to run I had trouble breathing for the first two weeks and I didn't have a clue as to what I was doing at that level. And I was running largely as an unknown, relative to some other people that were in the race. So I started off pretty scared and feeling really out of my element. But a campaign is an absolutely wonderful thing to go through. A year on the campaign trail and you think you knew your city, but you realize you really don't until you have gone through that kind of experience. By the time I came out of the campaign, I felt really comfortable in the role. And again, I was with a council where virtually everybody who was serving for the first time. There was only one incumbent that ran and was was re-elected to a council seat. So I was among peers. I was among a group of people that were trying to create something new.

Brian Ondrako  
And what was probably the most, I guess, if you can remember back and that was I guess, 2015 right? 

Steve Adler  
Yes. 

Brian Ondrako  
When you got elected, what was probably the biggest, I guess, unspoken challenge? Maybe that you remember back, then maybe you didn't consider and you're like, oh my god this was was actually something that really bothered, you know me or maybe made you nervous or whatever.

Steve Adler  
Well the first the unanticipated challenge from being elected that I saw after I was elected, so is that what you're asking?

Brian Ondrako  
Yeah, exactly like what was the biggest challenge? You didn't even think about coming into the mayoral seat, if you will, that almost kind of prompted set up after afterwards. 

Steve Adler  
The incoming volume, I did not anticipate. You know, I have at my office, a relatively small staff. We have lots of constituents calling and asking for assistance and help. And the truth is that if our office puts our shoulder to a constituent challenge or issue we can usually get them an answer more quickly or a better answer or resolution then they can get on their own. With the number of people that are calling in with constituent questions, I could spend all of my time and all of my staff time doing nothing. Responding to constituent inquiries which can do that. On any given Monday, there's a whole new set of issues that end up on my desk, that end up on my desk because they were hard and they couldn't be resolved at some other place. Sometimes these issues that are new to me on Monday and need to be resolved that week, somebody has been working on the community for three months or six months or two years, and it's one of the most important things in their lives. I could spend all of my time, all of my staff's time doing nothing. But learning and understanding those new issues that come up every Monday. 

Brian Ondrako  
Yeah, that's fair. Did you did you have to take a step back from your full time job or did you kind of split it up in a way where you had certain kind of office hours, if you will, as the mayor and also kind of continue doing your full time role?

Steve Adler  
No, this is a full time job. In fact, I left my law firm. I decided to leave it because it would have presented conflict of interest with the role as mayor. And because my law firm kept my name, I'm acquired by the bar to actually go to an inactive status. Oh, I'm twice removed from my old job.

Brian Ondrako  
Well, you're full in then as the mayor, that's good. You're full in and you're in your second term, right?

Steve Adler  
I am, I was re-elected last year.

Brian Ondrako  
So help me out then with obviously, Austin's a pretty well known city now. What's happened? I know you've been there, obviously, for a lot of years. Why is it grown so much? What's the biggest draw like been with Austin over the years because it has massively grown I think probably over the last, you know, what, 20 years or so right?

Steve Adler  
It has. Austin is the fastest growing large metropolitan area in the country and has been each of the last eight years. Which is pretty, pretty incredible. You know, it's a magical place with a really unique spirit and soul in this city. It's the live music capital of the world, we say. There is just phenomenal music playing in over a couple of hundred clubs on any given weekend night. It's beautiful. It's a city where the municipal swimming hole is a natural spring. But it's the people. There's a group of people who just self select to live in this city. It's a city where the catchphrase is 'keep Austin weird'. And that means lots of different things to lots of different people. To me, what that's always meant is we have a really high risk tolerance in this city. If you try something and you fail, and a lot of cities you're punished, you never get another chance. And in this city, if you succeed the first time out, you're kind of suspect because no one knows if you are good or lucky. So the people that try something and it doesn't work and they have to iterate and try again and iterate and try again are the real civic folk heroes. But it makes then for a place that's cutting edge and truly innovative and willing to look for new ideas, to try new things. Whether it be music or art or technology or solutions to social challenges. It's just a great place. You know, it's interesting that the growth here is geometric and just off the charts, but if you look at the growth rate in Austin, which is doubling population in this region, all metropolitan area every 2025 years, that growth rate has been the same in Austin since the 1850s. So there actually might be something in the water here.

Brian Ondrako  
Maybe, well, it's obviously a big tech hub, right? And I know isn't it called like silicon hills or something? Is there some like term right? There's a lot of, I know, companies from the San Francisco area, if you will, that are coming this way to Austin. Is that just something again, has that been growing slowly over the years or has a couple supplanted themselves in there a while back, and now everyone kind of wants that to be the new tech area?

Steve Adler  
Well, you know, it hasn't been tech for too long anywhere in the world. But we were one of the early cities in. There was a brilliant strategic decision that was made by the state and the University of Texas and the City of Austin. Some really wise community leaders that went in early, we were able to land a national consortium that the government was putting together to make sure we weren't falling behind and the really old chip manufacturing days, we had a couple of companies like 3M and IBM that have a presence here. It didn't hurt that Michael Dell built his first computer in his dormitory room here at the University of Texas, then decided to stay here. So we were in relatively early within the tech world. That world hasn't existed that long but the same kind of an iterative problem solving, that is incident to startups, kind of the startup culture, you have a really good idea your parents puts you in pizza money for a year, when you promise them that the end of the year, if it doesn't work, you'll go back to school. And if you're still alive in a year, you know, there are metrics you just need to hit. So you you get your first funding round from angels, you start trying stuff as quickly as you can. You have to hit certain places in a certain period of time. That philosophy is kind of cultural here. That's why I think we have more startups per capita than any other city, but it's why the tech stuff just really stuck here. And it goes back to what I talked about a little while ago where this is a culture that encourages people to take risks and to think outside the box. You know, we had a mayoral candidate a few years back there was known mostly for riding around Austin on his bike in a thong. Right, it just is a weird place. But most people don't give that kind of thing a second look. 

Brian Ondrako  
Yeah, now that's pretty neat. Well, let's talk about your time in office there. What have you been the most proud of? You guys got a lot accomplished. But is there one or two things that stick out that you've been the most proud of that you guys have accomplished?

Steve Adler  
Well, I'm proud that as a city and a fast growing city, a city that's doing so well, that the issues of equity and access are so paramount here. Really fighting the affordability issues that are that are tough in a gentrifying city. More and more people moving in with higher and higher incomes make it harder and harder for the people that have been here for a long time to be able to to stay. So I'm really proud of the things that we've done in criminal justice to decriminalize misdemeanors, keep people out of jail that don't necessarily need to be there. The work we've done with housing-a community that just passed a quarter of a billion dollar housing bond, which was huge for us. The work we're doing now in the community on homelessness, difficult work. The work we're doing on institutional racism and systemic inequities in this city. These are all things that point to real challenges and underlying concerns in a city like ours, but we're meeting those things head on. So I would say social justice and equity and portability. But we've also looked at the infrastructure. You know, this is a city that everybody loves Austin, their favorite day is their first day they got here. And I'm sure that everybody who got here after them are the ones that started messing things up. But what that means that, you know, for years, we never really built the infrastructure that a growing city like Austin needed, under the mistaken belief that if you didn't build it, people wouldn't come. Well, that actually doesn't work. People come anyhow, you just don't have the infrastructure to support it. So I'm proud of the mobility bond that we passed, which was larger than anything we have done in the last 20 years, cumulatively. I'm proud of the work we're doing right now to create a public mass transit system in the city.

Brian Ondrako  
Can we go back to the I'm really curious on the homelessness--how you guys are how are you solving that's, that's a big challenge. Obviously, you mentioned are there certain steps that you guys have already taken or things that you know, as a group, obviously with a lot of that you'll get help from a variety of groups trying to solve this and is there you know, do you see the outcome, the light at the end of the tunnel, if you will?

Steve Adler  
Yeah, you know, we see the outcome. You know, we were one of a handful of cities to get to net effective zero for veterans in our city. That doesn't mean there aren't any. It's not that we don't have any vets that are experiencing homelessness. But everyone we find we can get into housing within 45-60 days and get them social services, wraparound services immediately. And the number of veterans that we're finding that are experiencing homelessness are no greater than then the rate at which we're helping beds to exit homelessness. So we've reached an equilibrium place, but we need to scale that up to the whole city and that's difficult. Like many cities, we have kind of no camp no sit in a live ordinances that take the community experiencing homelessness and we hide it. In our in our forest there are streams and green belts. When we see it, we just move people around from one place they shouldn't be to another place that shouldn't be we're spending millions of dollars on that. So as a council we decriminalize the mere fact of experiencing homelessness. We kept the ordinances so it as to prohibit anything that created a public safety risk or public health harm or blogging or beating or aggressively confronting, but if you're doing none of those things, and you're just there on the street, we decided that we didn't want to put you in jail. We want to actually try to put you in a home. But by doing that, then we had a lot of people that came out of the woods, out of our rivers and streams, that are under RO and they moved to under our overpasses, a much safer place for them to be. Women that are in those kind of remote areas. Some of them are dealing with a customate practice of assault, they've just accepted as part of their lives, but then come out of that being an overpass where they're public and see them. They're in a much safer place. It's easier for us to reach them and give them health care. But you have a community that looks up and suddenly there's this really visible challenge. And while we didn't create any more people experiencing homelessness, certainly they are a lot more visible. And that's caused a lot of consternation in our community. The answer to that is to actually house those people. So we're marshaling resources with greater determination than then community I think is ever had before because so many people are focused on it. It's such a controversial issue in the city right now. But I think out of that controversy is coming in attention and a dedication that would enable us actually to to end homelessness in Austin, which is the goal.We could have hidden it more, kept it out of sight, but the numbers were going to keep growing and the fear was that they would grow to such a level. Like some of our sister cities in California on the west coast, where the numbers are just so great. Now, I don't even know what you do in those cities. The scale in Austin is much smaller. And we're a community now that I hope and trust, will really deal with this in real ways while our numbers are relatively low, so that we don't have the issue in six years or nine years.

Brian Ondrako  
And one of the things I want to mention is, you know, the land development, because you guys have i know that I think it was been 30 years or something like the actual code men change. And obviously, Austin looks a little different now than it did 30 years ago, how would you guys go about and I'm more curious on the inner twinings of the council and how these decisions get made? Do you guys bring in a group as a citizen boards? How does that work to actually change the code? Because some of the stuff that I deal with on a daily basis, there's a lot that goes on with it. Can you just talk to that process of actually identifying this has to happen, and then how do you go about actually making that change?

Steve Adler  
Well, you know we have a code, as you said, that's 30 years old. And it has been amended so many times tha it's really hard to pick up our code and figure out what the right answer is as to any kind of land development question. And it's not really serving us well because the code is so old, it's not helping us with climate change mitigation the way a new code might. It's not doing everything it could do to help us fight back against gentrification and displacement. It's not doing what it could to help us with traffic flow and mobility in the city. I think everybody agrees a new code would be good. Once you move past that agreement, then it becomes a very emotional issue. Because people want change until things start changing. Everybody loves their neighborhood. They don't want their neighborhood to change. They're happy for somebody else's neighborhood to change, just not theirs. So as you look at redoing land development codes across the country, a lot of those cities end up in a kind of pitched battle between people that are kind of the new urbanists that are fighting for more and more dense development, more and more walkable streets, more and more mixed use. And then you have people that are fighting to preserve what they believe to be the quality and feel and aesthetic of their single family home neighborhoods, and you end up in a pretty pitched battle. And a lot of cities have dealt with that, we're dealing with that now. We started like six years ago trying to redo our land development code. We pulled down the process because it wasn't getting us where we needed to be last year. We went through an election cycle in November, figuring at that point that the voters could really indicate, by who they elected, their feel on that question, that policy difference. Our city voted and I think returned a council that was one that had the votes now with the community will to actually get the job done. So something that we couldn't get down in the preceding six years, I think we're going to get done here in the first year.

Brian Ondrako  
And so how does that impact--for folks out there that aren't familiar with like land codes and everything--when that changes? How would that impact Austin in a positive way?

Steve Adler  
Well, you know, if we change our zoning, to let there be more dense development on streets in our corridors, that means that you can have more mixed use. You can put residential units on formerly just commercial areas. But you could also go up a floor or two, I know two or three more stories than previously you could do, that enables you to increase the housing supply that exists in the city. But at some level then a higher house can look down on the backing neighborhood in ways that you couldn't before and some neighborhoods object to that. If you take then the first row or first block and a half or two next to those corridors, and you say we're going to now say not only can you build a secondary, you know, single family home, but you can also build a duplex or a triplex or quad. You can build more units, again, that helps with housing supply in the city, the more supply you have, it's going to have an impact on price. But you know, again, that changes the character nature of the neighborhood because you're changing the structures that are there. I support that kind of change. Because I think one of our most significant challenges now is trying to maintain the population, the diversity that exists in our city. We need to do everything we can to keep prices of homes from going up as much as they have been going up, and I think supply would help. I also think affordability is going to be addressed if we can get a transit system that really works in our city. In order for that to happen, you have to have a lot of people riding it. You're going to have more people riding it, the more people you have living along the transit corridors in our city. That means increased density of people to better allow for transit, that means you don't necessarily have parking spaces associated with homes that creates a controversy in the in this city. But if you really want people to use transit, you have to provide better transit and you don't parking spaces now for that. You could build another unit instead of having to create more parking spaces on properties.

Brian Ondrako  
Yeah, and actually, that's I'm glad you brought that up again, because I want to chat. The last thing with is around mobility. You mentioned with the light rail and these proposed changes, I mean, because there's a lot of big cities out there right we see it on the news, the you know, they're backed up on their interstates and there's just a lot of traffic and issues. Obviously you guys are trying to get ahead of that. So talk through that just a little bit more like what's the expectation when you get a light rail in the impact? Obviously, it seems like some positive impact right around the city to be able to divert traffic, if you will, and it makes it safer, I'm assuming as well, there's probably a variety of positives. 

Steve Adler  
And it does. You know, if you ask most people in this city, what they think the biggest challenges are, you're going to hear affordability from a lot of them, and all the issues associated with that. But the other large answer you're going to hear is it's going to be about mobility. I mean, it wasn't that long ago, you can get anywhere in Austin from one place to another in 15 minutes. And people still think that way. But during peak hours, you can take it take you half an hour, 45 minutes to do the same thing. So it is a huge issue. And people are pretty upset with the level of congestion that exists in this city. I think it's all relative. I've seen it in LA and I've seen it in other cities but here it's still a very real problem. 74% of the people that work in our downtown area commute in and out every day alone in a single occupant vehicle. And if we're going to have a city that still functions in 30 years, we can't have 74% of the people--our population is expected to double we'll go from 1 million to 2 million people in this city and two million to four million people in the metropolitan area--we can't have 74% of those people commuting downtown, no one will be moving, which means we have to get people to shift mode. We have to get people to start using transit but no one's going to use transit until it's faster and quicker and cheaper and more convenient. So we have to build that system in order to be able to incent people to get out of their cars and to try something else. But once we're able to do that, we know from looking at other cities around the world, it's a much more pleasant city to be able to live in. It's an easier city to live in, it's a less expensive city to live in once you can establish that. It's always hard on these challenges to start the change, which you kind of have to lower your head and barrel through it. 

Brian Ondrako  
Yeah, that first step is always the toughest, but I think folks see that there's a light at the end of the tunnel and in a few years here's really where we can be impacted. And I think you get a lot of folks around that so mayor, last thing I want to ask because I know you have to run is--what kind of advice would you give to, you have obviously been in the seat for four-ish years, anyone else that's either running for mayor or maybe a council seat, kind of another, either neighboring cities or across the country, any advice you'd give to them? Or really just the citizens I guess, in general, to get out there with their office or their community to actually give back and kind of anything you would share as advice to help them at least make those decisions? Or to maybe give them some like the 'ra-ra cheering' like, hey, go out and actually help out? Anything huge here that was helpful for you to kind of get you over the edge to to run?

Steve Adler  
Well, first, I'd say that certainly from this vantage point, I know in ways I never knew before, how much quality of life in the city and the city's ability to be able to move forward does not come from government. It comes from all of the nonprofits and all of the boards and commissions, it's the citizen engagement in so many different ways and so many different organizations that really make a city work. And government at best just tries to fill in the gaps for what the community is not otherwise doing. So I would urge everybody you know, you don't have to run for mayor, you don't have to run for city council. There are credible ways to to really help a community and quite frankly, I think that anybody that's living in a community has some measure responsibility and duty to do that, to give back to the community. Now that said, being mayor or being on the city council enables you to be able to do good work at a much higher scale, to be able to impact a greater number of lives, to be able to move obstacles in a way that you can't when you're outside of government and just in a nonprofit say. So, I would say that I have never done anything that is as difficult as this job. But I've never done anything that was anywhere near as rewarding as this job as well. I know my city right now. And like I said earlier, I thought I knew my city before. But I've had a chance to meet so many people that are doing so many wonderful things and so many places that no one ever sees. But we've all felt the impact of the work that people are doing. The vantage point of being mayor is just unique. And it is wonderful.

Brian Ondrako  
Well Mayor Adler, thank you so much for joining. I'm excited to get back to Austin and see all the changes you guys are making. Hopefully listen to some great music as well. So thank you so much for taking time out and sharing a little bit about Austin and some of the great things you guys are doing.

Steve Adler  
Absolutely! Come back home.

Brian Ondrako  
Well, I hope everyone enjoyed that episode and look forward to having you in the next one. And remember, you can check out all of our great podcast episodes around operations management, and the unsung heroes that are trying to help impact the communities that you guys live, work, and play in. Operate Intelligently podcast, you can get on Apple podcast and other ways that you guys listen, so not just the Gov Gab but there's a lot of other stuff as well if you stay subscribed. And as always, if you guys enjoyed this episode or others on the Operate Intelligently Podcast, please leave a rating and give us a review. Let us know how we're doing so we can make this podcast better, each and every episode. We thank you again for listening in. We're certainly appreciative of it. We hope you have a phenomenal day and we'll talk to you soon.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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